Namibia’s wild elephants are being rounded up for international sale

Namibia’s December 2020 auction notice said elephants would be sold by herd and wouldn’t break up families. Calves are visible in drone footage of a farm where the 22 captured elephants slated for export are being held. Namibian journalist John Grobler took the video on February 12. He says he worries that more of the elephants may be pregnant and that the stress of captivity may trigger premature births.

“We captured elephant herds,” Muyunda says, and “it’s possible that some elephants were pregnant.” He confirmed that two calves were born after the elephants were taken from the wild and says “they are doing well.”

Grobler was charged with allegedly trespassing at the farm, which prompted the ministry to issue today’s statement to “clarify the current status of the auctions,” Muyunda says.

Grobler says he was standing on a public road when he sent a drone over the farm to monitor the elephants. The farm’s owner, GH Odendaal, declined to comment for this story.

It’s contentious whether Namibia is even permitted to export wild elephants to a foreign zoo or other buyer outside southern Africa.

The international wildlife treaty that regulates the export of wild African elephants, CITES, was amended in 2019 to bar elephants in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa from being exported to any country where the animals don’t or haven’t lived in the wild unless there’s a proven conservation benefit. That almost certainly rules out sales to zoos in, for example, China and the United States.

Dan Ashe, the president and CEO of the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), said February 14 in an email that the is unaware of any association by its members in the Namibian elephant auction. “We share concerns at the lack of transparency surrounding this initiative,” Ashe said. He added, however, that members are “under no obligations to inform AZA about potential animal imports.”

In October 2021, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on whether any facilities in the US had requested import permits for elephants from Namibia. National Geographic filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on October 4 for all potentially related permit applications but had not yet received those records. After this story published on February 15, the service’s FOIA office reached out to National Geographic to say it has no records of applications, eliminating US zoos as one of the possible destinations for these elephants.

“Namibia’s authorities should listen to international elephant experts and cancel these disastrous exports before it’s too late,” says Mark Jones, the head of policy for the UK-based Born Free Foundation, a group that opposes taking any animals from the wild.

Namibia’s elephant exports will be discussed next month at a scheduled CITES meeting in Lyon, France.

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